The Current

Small businesses question whether closing them will help control COVID-19 spread

New lockdown orders across the country have come at a crushing time for small business owners told to close — while big-box stores stay open.

Small retailers closing while big-box businesses remain open a 'double standard,' says store owner

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jolanta Petrycka normally looks forward to the holiday season, as heightened sales provide her with the extra money she needs to sustain her Toronto-based stationery store, Take Note.

But this year, COVID-19 restrictions have forced her store to close down for the time being, and she's concerned about the financial hit she's going to take. 

"It was a very difficult year, so December was supposed to be a month that … hopefully I can catch up financially," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "You know, I'm dipping into my personal line of credit constantly in order to survive this year and see what the spring brings and how I can move then with my business."

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, businesses deemed non-essential in COVID-19 hotspots have had to adapt to changing restrictions, relying instead on takeout orders, virtual sales or curbside pickup. 

Ontario locked down non-essential businesses in compliance with public health directives on Monday in Toronto and Peel regions.

"Further action is required to prevent the worst-case scenario," Ford told reporters last Friday.

But many of these small retailers are asking whether stores like theirs have really contributed significantly to the spread of the virus.

Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said that small businesses are being used unfairly as a signal to the public.

"Business owners now are questioning — because there's been so limited data to suggest that retail shopping is a problem — they're feeling like they're being used as an example to send a message to the public that it's got to get its act together and take COVID more seriously, rather than … because retail shopping is inherently risky," he said.

In fact, according to Case and Contact Monitoring (CCM) data from Ontario municipalities, just four per cent of COVID cases in Toronto were linked to grocery, retail and service industries as of late October, though with cases surging in recent weeks, it gets more difficult to identify transmission sites.

A comparison of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario municipalities from Aug. 1 to Oct. 24, 2020. ( Science Advisory and Modelling Consensus Tables)

Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto Public Health, said that while the choice to impose restrictions on businesses was difficult, it was an important step toward preventing the spread of the virus.

"We've tried restrictions, we have public health guidance on how to do this properly, but what we're seeing is that when things are open, people are out and about and it's in that out and about gathering, meeting with people that COVID is spreading," she said.

A double standard

Small businesses also say they are being disproportionately impacted compared to big-box retailers, which are not only allowed to remain open, but continue to sell non-essential goods.

When asked why that is the case in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said that trying to restrict big-box stores from selling non-essential items "would be a logistical nightmare."

But Kelly said that restricting big-box businesses from selling non-essential items has been done elsewhere, including within Canada.

"They've done it in Manitoba, they've done it in Vermont, they've done it in Wales, where large retailers, big-box stores, are limited to selling essential goods," he said.

"Look, if it's dangerous to buy a book in an independent bookstore with five people, then why is it not dangerous to buy that book in a Costco with 200 breathing over your neck?"

Petrycka says small businesses are being held to a "double standard,"

"I don't believe it's that difficult for stores to change where people are shopping [and] how they can handle the influx of people," she said.

She also questions why small businesses like hers can't remain open if social-distancing measures are put into place.

"I have around 600 square feet of space for people to enter, so I can ask four people at any given time to be at the store and that gives them 150 square feet around them," she said. "And people move from section to section in a very well organized manner, and they don't stay for too long."

"So absolutely, I think we have a way of controlling this and we proved we do."

Right now, a strong wind could blow down small businesses because they're so desperately weakened.- Dan Kelly, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Dr. Dubey said that while big-box stores can sell non-essential items, "our message is to only go there for essentials."

She said that while non-essential stores should be closed, people are being encouraged to support them in different ways.

"Those small retailers that have had to close, we definitely think that we should be supporting them," she said. "So, as much as possible we are encouraging the public to do curbside pickup, online, virtual, whatever is possible to be able to support those retailers that have had to close. But we're in this together to prevent the spread of this virus."

Worse shape than earlier in the year

Kelly said that although small businesses have had to close before, they were in better shape to handle closures earlier this year than they are now. 

"Right now, a strong wind could blow down small businesses because they're so desperately weakened," he said. "They had the closures in the spring, they had limited sales over the course of the summer, [and] there were some glimmers of hope that have been taken away."

Some small business owners say it's unfair that big-box stores get to sell non-essential items just because they also sell essential items like groceries and medicines. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

'The business is my soul'

For the time being, Petrycka will have to deal with her store being closed for in-person shopping. And while the current lockdown measures in Ontario will remain in place until Dec. 21, she still worries about how the few weeks of closure will impact her life and those of her workers.

"The business is just my soul," she said. "This is my source of income for my family, and I also have the help of two people who are artists and they work part-time. So that's very important supplement to their income…"

"So that's very bad because … that small store, it's a bit like a community for neighbourhoods and for the people who work [here]."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Isabelle Gallant, Rachel Levy-McLaughlin, and Kate Cornick.

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